A successful series does inspire more hope that this 2005 season will extend to the end of May, specifically into the SEC Tournament. By taking two from the visiting Crimson Tide the Bulldogs have clawed their way to seventh place in the overall conference standings, with two more weekends left to determine the field for Hoover. State is 11-12 in league play, 30-16 overall, and—for the moment at least—standing among the elite eight.
"It kind of gets us off on a good foot for the remainder of the season," said catcher/third baseman Thomas Berkery.
At the same time it's a slippery step these Dogs have that foot on, barely a half-step in front of 11-13 Auburn, Arkansas, and Vanderbilt. One stumble and State can slide past all three; in fact that is exactly what happened Saturday night as that trio won and the Bulldogs lost. As easily as that MSU was in tenth place and fearful for the post-season.
Less than 24 hours later the situation reversed completely. With the Tigers, Razorbacks, and Commodores all losing, and Jeffrey Rea smacking a two-RBI base hit in the bottom of the eighth inning, Mississippi State was suddenly back on the #7 rung. "It seems like around the league last night everything worked against us, today all the scores were in our favor," Coach Ron Polk said.
Fortunately the Bulldogs show no signs of motion sickness at the abrupt rise-and-fall of their SEC stock. They're just happy to still be in thick of a packed conference race to the May 22 finish line. "We're still in it," said third baseman/catcher Ed Easley. "We can't control anybody else, we have to go out and take care of ourselves and win. And we'll be OK."
Things were better than OK after the weekend, a marked change from the previous Sunday following a sad series at Mississippi. The Bulldogs did come out of that sweep still clinging to the #8 SEC slot but with no margin over immediate competition, as well as the pain of being broomed. Tensions were so high that McCaskill's self-aimed jibe about getting two hits in his first college start in a loss unfortunately struck all sorts of wrong chords, to the point even Polk questioned use of the quote…an almost unheard-of reaction by State's skipper.
A week later all involved are sharing the joke. And it isn't a coincidence that it was a week-off, too, for final exams. With no competition the Dogs took care of class business, then practiced unpressured. By Friday all were rested, relaxed, and ready for a series they simply had to win. And did. "Last weekend was tough and it was great for us to bounce back like that," said Sunday hero Rea, who clearly benefited from the downtime to rest his tender hamstring.
"We had a really productive week," said Berkery, "it was a good break to get us re-focused. It worked out well for us." A sweep would have worked better but just winning the series and staying in the thick of the Hoover race was a satisfactory outcome.
"After a tough weekend at Ole Miss everybody realized we had to step it up if we want to make it to the tournament," Easley said. "I think that's what we're doing, we realize what we have to do. And I think we'll be alright.
Perhaps. This winning weekend was a priceless step in the right direction but the Bulldogs are far from assured of getting to Hoover, with remaining series at Florida and against Louisiana State. There are also non-conference contests to play, starting tonight against Birmingham-Southern in Jackson as well as a Tuesday home game with Mississippi Valley State and the May 17 single game with Tennessee-Martin. Those out-of-league matchups can help State's overall record.
What matters more is the SEC finish, specifically making the league tourney field. True, the 2004 team missed out on Hoover and still earned a NCAA bid, but nobody should count on a repeat in '05 with ten conference clubs still realistically in the post-season picture. In fact, all 12 teams are still mathematically alive in the Hoover sweepstakes, and scoreboard-watching is very much in fashion at SEC parks.
Still, "You have to take one game at a time," Rea said. "You can't look too far ahead, you can't depend on other people. You have to worry about your own team."
While most MSU folk are focused on keeping a step ahead in the Hoover race, Polk is looking at things from a surprisingly different angle…up the ladder, instead of behind. "We're 2.5 games out of first place in the West, we've got six games to play," the coach said. "Everybody wants to talk about the back end, about getting into the tournament. I've got to think we've still got a shot at this thing!"
Bold talk about a team not even at .500 in the league, but the absurdly tight West standings do give Polk's comment some credibility. Alabama and LSU are 14-10 each and Mississippi is 13-11, so yes, by the numbers all within reach of…well, everyone. In the West the difference from first-to-worst is three games, a single weekend's work. "Nobody has given up," Polk said. "It's still going to be a dogfight to the end. Arkansas or Auburn may with the West!"
Mabye so, but the real bottom line is making sure the Bulldogs win their share of the fight for Hoover. "I understand that, and we've got a tough six games," Polk agreed. "But everybody's got it tough."
Florida is a tough enough trip to focus Bulldog attention. The Gators, coached by former Polk aide and MSU boss Pat McMahon, aren't in good humor after dropping series to Tennessee and Arkansas and losing their league lead. Florida is also playing not only for a league title but Regional host rights, something Mississippi State can't afford to be pondering at the moment. The Dogs still have to secure postseason privileges first.
If they play two more series like this one just past, tournament time will be back on the schedule. "I think we're playing good now, we're on a roll," Easley said. "We've got a couple of midweek games and we'll take advantage of those to play hard and carry it over into the Florida weekend."
Good might mean good enough, because State certainly isn't great in any aspect of the game. What made the difference against Alabama was the revival of Bulldog bats after a two-week slump, and more specifically a show of timely hitting in the two wins. Of course it was the lack of one clutch knock that cost Saturday's contest, so there remains much to prove in this offense. But pitching and defense have been relatively reliable all year, so two good games at the plate was a major boost to club confidence.
"I think we all knew we had to step it up," said Rea, "the pitchers have been giving us a chance and we just haven't hit like we should." The team average of .290 is still nothing to brag about. "We've been hitting the ball," Berkery said, "it's the clutch hit that has been costing us."
Polk has adjusted his order and lineup a few times since an April 16 injury to centerfielder Joseph Hunter, the team's average leader. Sunday he dropped struggling #3 batter Brad Corley all the way to sixth and the junior delivered three hits, hopefully snapping a six-game slump. Before that Corley had hit game-winning RBI four times in a week, showing how fragile this offense can be.
"He handled it well, and it helped him relax," said Polk. "I probably should have done it before but I kept waiting and waiting and waiting… And it happens to a lot of kids of draft-year, he was overswinging and swinging at bad pitches." Now Corley should move back up a notch or two. Hunter also is back, a week ahead of schedule for his broken right thumb. Rea, Berkery, and Kateon got a short rest all needed with nagging sore spots after three grueling months, so the lineup ought to be as healthy as possible for mid-May.
This should also allow State to run-and-hit more often, if not straight-steal. With Hunter starting again the outfield has some flexibility. Brian LaNinfa, activated freshman Mitch Moreland, McCaskill, and veteran Jeff Butts can be mixed and matched as well as pinch-hit and run. The all right-handed rotation of Johnson, Todd Doolittle, and Jon Crosby is set and the relief lineup has been figured out, though to some extent the bullpen hasn't been maximized this season. Brett Cleveland, Justin Pigott, and now Mike Valentine have the long-relief down pat.
Johnson made an interesting observation after his Friday stint, that he had told Coach Russ McNickle that State's pitching plans had gotten away from early-season tactics with two much pitching ‘backwards,' or throwing outside the zone first. "At the beginning of the season we were going to pound the zone with fastballs, he went back and looked at the chart and said I was right."
So the starters were more aggressive in the last two games at Oxford and all three outings with the Tide, producing excellent results from the moundmen. Johnson also pointed out that Kentucky and Mississippi were probably stealing the pitching signs and Alabama attempting the same. "That's why we kept going back-and-forth, just swapping stuff up." Whether this actually mattered or not, the strategy did some mental good for all Dogs.
And mind games matter in May games. The Diamond Dogs have fresh confidence and a slightly stronger standing, but there is also almost no margin for stretch-run error. So while their coach looks at the top of the SEC standings the team still must take care of business at the in-or-out end of the ladder. Midweek momentum will help.
"We need to win these games this midweek," Valentine said, "get our hitters ready and keep swinging the bats. And we (pitchers) have to keep it down at Florida because balls fly out of that park."